“Edet hurry up” came the shout, I poked my head out the window to see who was calling me.
“My friend, be fast or else we’ll leave you behind,” the impatient voice continued.
“I’m coming” I shouted to Bimbo, fourteen years old and the leader of our small gang. It was nine in the morning and my mum had already left the house to man her petty trade. I was the youngest in the group being the youngest at eight years and felt it a very big privilege that these older guys would associate with me not to talk of letting me into their exclusive clique.
Quickly, I pulled on my faded Kaki shorts and my green tee shirt, although it had quit a number of holes in them (caused by cockroaches I suspected) I felt my outfit appropriate for the day’s task of bush rat hunting. I hurried down the stairs and took the back door of our low cost apartment building in Iyana-Ipaja.
“What took you so long?” Bimbo asked a scowl on his wide black face. He was a very ugly boy, his large tribal marks and his flat wide nose did nothing to compliment his features.
“I’ m sorry, I had to take the back so that mama wouldn’t see me… you know that she sells in front of the main entrance to the building.”
“That’s not what I was talking about, I told you that we had to be at the venue early and now due to your tardiness there might not be any rats left in their holes”.
Bimbo’s father was the local school head master and also the primary six English teacher. His father always insisted on Queen’s English in their home hence Bimbo’s showmanship. I secretly believed that his constant use of big words was one of the reasons he was the undisputed leader. Not that I understood the meaning of the word tardiness but I couldn’t see that it mattered as long as it didn’t prevent my membership status.
“I’ m sorry please… it wasn’t international” whatever the problem was that always seemed to be magic word to get you out of disfavour with Bimbo.
“Alright, alright” Bimbo said “let’s go meet the others, we’re late enough as it is”
I trudged along happily behind him, I had heard a lot about bush rat hunting and today I was going to experience it firsthand.
Not long afterwards we caught up with the rest of the troupe. They had been waiting impatiently for our arrival.
“What happened now?” Mfon, Bimbo’s recognized second in command asked obviously upset by the delay.
“I was…” I started
“Leave it and let’s do the task ahead” Bimbo cut in, then noticing the blank stares of the other children “let’s go and catch the bush rats now”.
“Ohhh…” we all said in unison, comprehension suddenly dawning on all of us.
“Ade, did you bring the kerosene?” Bimbo asked and received a nod in response “Mfon, you nko… were you able to bring the knives?”
“Yes” he answered gruffly it appeared like he was still upset at my late arrival.
“How many?” Bimbo asked either not noticing or choosing not to notice his brash behaviour.
“Six” he answered in the same tone.
“What’s left, ehen… Nnamdi, did you bring the matches?”
“Mmm” he murmured in the affirmative.
“Okay then, let’s go”
I was so excited; this was going to be my first adventure since my arrival in Lagos, three months ago.
As we trudged the path leading to our destination, I was in a terrible itch. In my haste to meet Bimbo, I had forgotten to rub Vaseline; it was the harmattan season
“What’s wrong with you?” Nnamdi asked me noticing my discomfort. I longed to tell him in hope for a little sympathy but I knew I had to earn my rights there as a member of this group. I had to be tough but it wasn’t easy being the youngest
“Nothing” I replied.
As we arrived at the chosen spot, the other boys began gathering dry grass. Being a novice at this I just watched in fascination.
When they had made up to ten small bundles they soaked them in kerosene and began stuffing them in some holes in the ground.
“Nnamdi” I nudged him trying to get his attention, “why are we stuffing the holes?”
“To block every escape route,” he answered impatiently. I decided to keep quiet and watch the proceedings trying hard to ignore the different questions that went through my head, questions like; how did they know which hole to plug and what guarantee was there that they weren’t plugging up a snake hole, boy was this confusing.
Nnamdi, hurry… the matches” Bimbo was excited and the feeling contagious.
“Mfon, distribute the knives… quickly” he continued. Every man get ready, n…o…w!”
I stood in front of an unplugged hole, knowing that I was expected to catch a rat but not sure on how I was going to achieve that goal.
Siki, another member of our group hurried round lighting the tufts of soaked grass. The heat from the flames was intense although beautiful; the sharp yellow contrasted well with the dull dry grass everywhere, this of course was because of the season.
The first bush rat came out of its hole; a large brown furry fellow with a long pointed mouth and whiskers. I started in amazement. It was my very first encounter with anything of that sort then as if by magic, these creatures began to emerge in hordes.
They were everywhere.
“Don’t just stand there, KILL THEM!” Bimbo yelled as he dived after one and missed. We all seemed to wake up in one accord as we began to chase these mammals futilely. I had just fallen down after my third attempt when I noticed that the heat from the mini bon fires had intensified. I looked up; the entire bush was on fire.
“Bimbo!” I yelled in fright “look!”
My shout drew everyone’s attention as we suddenly realized that we were to blame for the present predicament. Always the leaders he began to mobilize us into action.
“Take off your shirts and beat the fire out” he commanded, his voice betraying the fear he felt.
We all got to work; although we tried hard it appeared like the elements were not on our side. The fire refused to be put out and just kept on spreading with fierce intensity.
“Oh boy eh… we don enter” Siki said standing up, obviously giving up the fight.
“Wetin?” Somina, his older brother asked.
Siki just pointed, his action drawing everybody’s attention.
The fire was headed towards a large transformer.
“Oh my God, oh my God” I said, panicking
Two guards on bicycles had noticed the fire and began peddling towards it.
“Run oh, if they catch us… hen” Somina said
We ran for all we were worth.
Unfortunately because I was the youngest, my legs were also the shortest and I couldn’t keep up with the order boys no matter how hard I tried. I looked back but only saw one guard peddling furiously. He was some distance away so I felt somewhat safe.
Turning my head to face my destination I noticed that my escape route had been blocked by the second guard, I didn’t know where he came from. I hadn’t even seen him pass.
My heart did a flip-flop and dropped into my stomach. I tried to bypass him but in what seemed like a flash, he got off his bicycle and grabbed the waistband of my shorts.
“My friend, wey you think say you dey go?” he asked me, his fair face red and flushed. I began to cry, I imagined what my mum would say as for my father, I would get the belt for sure.
“Oga, abeg now” Bimbo said, he had come back when he noticed that I had been caught but he kept a safe distance lest he too be grabbed.
“Wetin una bin think say una bin de do?” he asked “I go take you go police because if now they come question me go enter Wahala”
My thoughts went back to what Somina had said earlier; thoughts of wearing prison clothes, being manhandled by other prisoners began to plague my subconscious. I wet myself.
“Oga Pl…ee…aa…sseee” I said weeping, I was in agony. By now the other boys had joined in the plea, all at safe distances.
He looked at me for a while, a period that felt like ages then he gave me a rough shove.
“Run before my Oga catch una”.
“Thank you” I said as I started to run.
When I got home, I ran into the bathroom to wash of all the soot, the telltale signs of my little adventure.
I stuffed my shorts into a black nylon bag and pushed it as far as it would go under the bed.
* * * *
“Edet, they’re asleep,” my wife Nta said as she began to wake the oldest of my six children to help her take the younger ones to bed.
“I’m not sleeping” Junior, my eight year old son said, “Please daddy, tell me what happened next”.
I smiled at him; I could see so much of myself in him.
“It wouldn’t be fair on your sibling; they too would want to know”.
“Oh daddy, come on… I won’t sleep if I don’t know, please”.
“All right little man, come here” I lifted him and placed him on my lap.
“The police never came, my mum didn’t find out either but I never regained the courage to embark on such an expedition again, I stuck to fishing and lizard hunting”.
“But dad, what about the transformer, what happened to it?”
“I really don’t know, I never went back to check” Junior didn’t look satisfied.
“The lights never did give out so I assumed the fire either put itself out or was stopped in time”.
“That was a dangerous game you played then”.
“I know son, now you know why I don’t let you play with fire”.
“I guess” he let out a long yawn.
“Time for bed young man.”
“But I’m not sleepy” he protested weakly as I lifted him in my arms and carried him to his room.
He was asleep before I placed him on his bed.